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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows


Living in Wellington was a career choice. It was 1987. I was in Singapore and decided against some family opposition to become a freelance historian. I enjoyed my twenty-two years in the New Zealand Army, and was content enough, but had the itch to write. That came from writing Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, published in 1984, and working on the television documentary of the same name. If I left writing until I retired I believed I would always be an amateur so I left the world of an Infantry Officer and took the plunge. Wellington had to be our base. From Waiouru and then Auckland I had found the difficulty of mounting smash and grab raids to National Archives and the Alexander Turnbull Library, bunking over in Mike Wickstead's flat in Hobson Court. So Wellington had to be home.

The family home in Sefton Street is a typical Wadestown house looking to the western hills bathed in afternoon sunlight, the downside being the northerly winds. In my first years I wrote there each morning. Walking David to school with Blue the dog, then writing from nine till one. The Maurice Shadbolt routine, 1000 words then stop even if I had more to say. Just let it come, good days, bad days, the next time through it would get better. My draft was my file, layering in the research as I went, writing early, writing often, just like tennis, practising my craft every day.

The Army gave me three months resettlement leave on full pay and I offered my services to the National Archives checking and listing the First World War holdings. It was letting loose a child in a lolly shop. Sheer marvellous indulgence, being allowed to look into every War Archives box in the bowels of the Air New Zealand building in Vivian Street. After the three months finished I kept on with it. No money coming in, living on what we had put aside to get me started. Dee at university, the kids at school, enjoying every day. I got involved in the War Art collection. Tony Murray-Oliver had done wonders in gathering the Second World War collection from RSAs various. But on his death, little had been done with the First World War collection. Sorting them out was difficult, the records messy, and identification uncertain. That's where I came in. I could not tell how it was painted, but I could identify scenes and individuals. One thing led to another. The 1990 sesqui-centennial exhibitions: The Honorary Rank of Captain, A Loss of Innocence, and Crete: A Tribute from New Zealand and I was now earning money. Archives were also good company, Ray Grover and his team endured my singing. Georgina Christensen administering each exhibition with me as curator. Walking daily from Wadestown to Vivian Street. Lunchtimes in the Cuba Street galleries and second-hand bookshops. Jazz 78s in Slow Boat Records, sheer delight. Archives led me to the New Zealand Film Archive identifying and cataloguing official New Zealand First World War documentaries and newsreels, equally good company and equally enjoyable.

I was also writing a history of the New Zealand Division on the Western page 76 Front which ten years on is still in draft. One chapter on discipline was giving me trouble. Wherever I put it in the draft, it did not fit and seemed better as a stand-alone project. In Archives I came across the court-martial register of the New Zealand Division. Defence Headquarters Legal Branch and Base Records threw up the records of those New Zealanders sentenced to death, but not executed in the First World War, and the Judge Advocate General Sir John White gave me access to the records of the five New Zealanders executed. What started out being a 'quickie' took two years. It became my D Phil thesis. Laurie Barber at Waikato encouraged me to apply to complete a doctorate, despite no formal academic qualifications, on the strength of my writing and publications. On the Fringe of Hell: New Zealanders and Military Discipline in the First World War was the result.

I also got a contract to write the official history of New Zealanders in South East Asia working to both Historical Branch and Headquarters New Zealand Defence Force. It gave me an office in Defence House, access to files, research trips overseas, and a project that I have only just finished many years on. Writing a contract history has been a salutary experience. You have to anticipate where you are going and stick to it. That was the difficult part. At times, in despair, I sought and enjoyed distraction. Books, two during my time as Writer in Residence at Victoria, feature articles for Kate Coughlan at the Evening Post, being one of the team that started the New Zealand Defence Quarterly magazine, now five years old and going strong. Curator and then Creative Director of Scars on the Heart at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, commuting to Auckland every second week for two years. It is only in the last two years that I fell in love with Fighting a Jungle War, as I have with all my other books. Looking forward to 5.30 or 6.00 am starts, writing the daily quota, finally doing it justice.

Wellington is an inextricable part of all this. Meeting everybody on Lambton Quay. Long café discussions with Ray Grover and Oliver Riddell. DQM breakfasts and lunches with Jim Rolfe and Lindsay Missen. Art gallery afternoons and coffee with Christopher Moore when punch-drunk from writing.

I am typing this in Armidale in northern New South Wales. Our delight during the two years here have been the weeks we have stolen in Balmain. Last week I rang my wife, back visiting family, and asked Dee how Wellington struck her after Australia. Her reply: 'A windy Balmain.' But really, it's the other way round. Balmain reminds me of Wellington and it's time to go home.